Part 4 out of 4
later he cried:
"Why it's the play-actor! How come you here, man?"
And so saying he gained the bank.
I laid hold of the rope, but I paused. He stood on the bank,
sword in hand, and he could cut my head open or spit me
through the heart as I came up. I let go the rope.
"Never mind," said I; "but as I am here, I think I'll stay."
He smiled down on me.
"These women are the deuce--" he began; when suddenly the
great bell of the Castle started to ring furiously,
and a loud shout reached us from the moat.
Rupert smiled again, and waved his hand to me.
"I should like a turn with you, but it's a little too hot!"
said he, and he disappeared from above me.
In an instant, without thinking of danger, I laid my hand to the rope.
I was up. I saw him thirty yards off, running like a deer towards
the shelter of the forest. For once Rupert Hentzau had chosen discretion
for his part. I laid my feet to the ground and rushed after him,
calling to him to stand. He would not. Unwounded and vigorous,
he gained on me at every step; but, forgetting everything
in the world except him and my thirst for his blood, I pressed on,
and soon the deep shades of the forest of Zenda engulfed us both,
pursued and pursuer.
It was three o'clock now, and day was dawning. I was on
a long straight grass avenue, and a hundred yards ahead
ran young Rupert, his curls waving in the fresh breeze.
I was weary and panting; he looked over his shoulder and waved
his hand again to me. He was mocking me, for he saw he had the pace
of me. I was forced to pause for breath. A moment later,
Rupert turned sharply to the right and was lost from my sight.
I thought all was over, and in deep vexation sank on the ground.
But I was up again directly, for a scream rang through the forest--
a woman's scream. Putting forth the last of my strength,
I ran on to the place where he had turned out of my sight,
and, turning also, I saw him again. But alas! I could not touch him.
He was in the act of lifting a girl down from her horse;
doubtless it was her scream that I heard. She looked like
a small farmer's or a peasant's daughter, and she carried
a basket on her arm. Probably she was on her way to the
early market at Zenda. Her horse was a stout, well shaped animal.
Master Rupert lifted her down amid her shrieks--the sight of him
frightened her; but he treated her gently, laughed, kissed her,
and gave her money. Then he jumped on the horse, sitting sideways
like a woman; and then he waited for me. I, on my part, waited for him.
Presently he rode towards me, keeping his distance, however.
He lifted up his hand, saying:
"What did you in the Castle?"
"I killed three of your friends," said I.
"What! You got to the cells?"
"And the King?"
"He was hurt by Detchard before I killed Detchard,
but I pray that he lives."
"You fool!" said Rupert, pleasantly.
"One thing more I did."
"And what's that?"
"I spared your life. I was behind you on the bridge,
with a revolver in my hand."
"No? Faith, I was between two fires!"
"Get off your horse," I cried, "and fight like a man."
"Before a lady!" said he, pointing to the girl.
"Fie, your Majesty!"
Then in my rage, hardly knowing what I did, I rushed at him.
For a moment he seemed to waver. Then he reined his horse in
and stood waiting for me. On I went in my folly. I seized
the bridle and I struck at him. He parried and thrust at me.
I fell back a pace and rushed at him again; and this time
I reached his face and laid his cheek open, and darted back
almost before he could strike me. He seemed almost dazed
at the fierceness of my attack; otherwise I think he must have killed me.
I sank on my knee panting, expecting him to ride at me.
And so he would have done, and then and there, I doubt not,
one or both of us would have died; but at the moment
there came a shout from behind us, and, looking round,
I saw, just at the turn of the avenue, a man on a horse.
He was riding hard, and he carried a revolver in his hand.
It was Fritz von Tarlenheim, my faithful friend.
Rupert saw him, and knew that the game was up.
He checked his rush at me and flung his leg over the saddle,
but yet for just a moment he waited. Leaning forward,
he tossed his hair off his forehead and smiled, and said:
"Au revoir, Rudolf Rassendyll!"
Then, with his cheek streaming blood, but his lips laughing
and his body swaying with ease and grace, he bowed to me;
and he bowed to the farm-girl, who had drawn near in trembling
fascination, and he waved his hand to Fritz, who was just within
range and let fly a shot at him. The ball came nigh doing its work,
for it struck the sword he held, and he dropped the sword with an oath,
wringing his fingers and clapped his heels hard on his horse's belly,
and rode away at a gallop.
And I watched him go down the long avenue, riding as though
he rode for his pleasure and singing as he went,
for all there was that gash in his cheek.
Once again he turned to wave his hand, and then the gloom
of thickets swallowed him and he was lost from our sight.
Thus he vanished--reckless and wary, graceful and graceless,
handsome,debonair, vile, and unconquered. And I flung my sword
passionately on the ground and cried to Fritz to ride after him.
But Fritz stopped his horse, and leapt down and ran to me,
and knelt, putting his arm about me. And indeed it was time,
for the wound that Detchard had given me was broken forth afresh,
and my blood was staining the ground.
"Then give me the horse!" I cried, staggering to my feet
and throwing his arms off me. And the strength of my rage
carried me so far as where the horse stood, and then I fell
prone beside it. And Fritz knelt by me again.
"Fritz!" I said.
"Ay, friend--dear friend!" he said, tender as a woman.
"Is the King alive?"
He took his handkerchief and wiped my lips, and bent
and kissed me on the forehead.
"Thanks to the most gallant gentleman that lives,"
said he softly, "the King is alive!"
The little farm-girl stood by us, weeping for fright and
wide-eyed for wonder; for she had seen me at Zenda;
and was not I, pallid, dripping, foul, and bloody as I was--
yet was not I the King?
And when I heard that the King was alive, I strove to cry
"Hurrah!" But I could not speak, and I laid my head back
in Fritz's arms and closed my eyes, and I groaned; and then,
lest Fritz should do me wrong in his thoughts, I opened my eyes
and tried to say "Hurrah!" again. But I could not. And being
very tired, and now very cold, I huddled myself close up to Fritz,
to get the warmth of him, and shut my eyes again and went to sleep.
The Prisoner and the King
In order to a full understanding of what had occurred in
the Castle of Zenda, it is necessary to supplement my account
of what I myself saw and did on that night by relating briefly
what I afterwards learnt from Fritz and Madame de Mauban.
The story told by the latter explained clearly how it happened
that the cry which I had arranged as a stratagem and a sham
had come, in dreadful reality, before its time, and had thus,
as it seemed at the moment, ruined our hopes, while in the end
it had favoured them. The unhappy woman, fired, I believe by
a genuine attachment to the Duke of Strelsau, no less than
by the dazzling prospects which a dominion over him opened before
her eyes, had followed him at his request from Paris to Ruritania.
He was a man of strong passions, but of stronger will,
and his cool head ruled both. He was content to take all
and give nothing. When she arrived, she was not long in finding
that she had a rival in the Princess Flavia; rendered desperate,
she stood at nothing which might give, or keep for her,
her power over the duke. As I say, he took and gave not.
Simultaneously, Antoinette found herself entangled in
his audacious schemes. Unwilling to abandon him,
bound to him by the chains of shame and hope,
yet she would not be a decoy, nor, at his bidding,
lure me to death. Hence the letters of warning she had written.
Whether the lines she sent to Flavia were inspired by good or bad feeling,
by jealousy or by pity, I do not know; but here also she served us well.
When the duke went to Zenda, she accompanied him; and here for the first time
she learnt the full measure of his cruelty, and was touched with compassion
for the unfortunate King. From this time she was with us; yet,
from what she told me, I know that she still (as women will)
loved Michael, and trusted to gain his life, if not his pardon,
from the King, as the reward for her assistance. His triumph
she did not desire, for she loathed his crime, and loathed yet
more fiercely what would be the prize of it--his marriage with
his cousin, Princess Flavia.
At Zenda new forces came into play--the lust and daring of young Rupert.
He was caught by her beauty, perhaps; perhaps it was enough for him
that she belonged to another man, and that she hated him.
For many days there had been quarrels and ill will between
him and the duke, and the scene which I had witnessed
in the duke's room was but one of many. Rupert's proposals to me,
of which she had, of course, been ignorant, in no way surprised her
when I related them; she had herself warned Michael against Rupert,
even when she was calling on me to deliver her from both of them.
On this night, then, Rupert had determined to have his will.
When she had gone to her room, he, having furnished himself
with a key to it, had made his entrance. Her cries had brought
the duke, and there in the dark room, while she screamed,
the men had fought; and Rupert, having wounded his master
with a mortal blow, had, on the servants rushing in,
escaped through the window as I have described.
The duke's blood, spurting out, had stained his opponent's shirt;
but Rupert, not knowing that he had dealt Michael his death,
was eager to finish the encounter. How he meant to deal with
the other three of the band, I know not. I dare say he did not think,
for the killing of Michael was not premeditated. Antoinette,
left alone with the duke, had tried to stanch his wound,
and thus was she busied till he died; and then, hearing Rupert's taunts,
she had come forth to avenge him. Me she had not seen, nor did she
till I darted out of my ambush, and leapt after Rupert into the moat.
The same moment found my friends on the scene. They had
reached the chateau in due time, and waited ready by the door.
But Johann, swept with the rest to the rescue of the duke,
did not open it; nay, he took a part against Rupert, putting himself
forward more bravely than any in his anxiety to avert suspicion;
and he had received a wound, in the embrasure of the window.
Till nearly half-past two Sapt waited; then, following my orders,
he had sent Fritz to search the banks of the moat. I was not there.
Hastening back, Fritz told Sapt; and Sapt was for following orders still,
and riding at full speed back to Tarlenheim; while Fritz would not hear
of abandoning me, let me have ordered what I would. On this they disputed
some few minutes; then Sapt, persuaded by Fritz, detached a party
under Bernenstein to gallop back to Tarlenheim and bring up the marshal,
while the rest fell to on the great door of the chateau.
For several minutes it resisted them; then, just as Antoinette de Mauban
fired at Rupert of Hentzau on the bridge, they broke in,
eight of them in all: and the first door they came to was the door
of Michael's room; and Michael lay dead across the threshold,
with a sword-thrust through his breast. Sapt cried out at his death,
as I had heard, and they rushed on the servants; but these, in fear,
dropped their weapons, and Antoinette flung herself weeping at Sapt's feet.
And all she cried was,that I had been at the end of the bridge and leapt off.
"What of the prisoner?" asked Sapt; but she shook her head. Then Sapt
and Fritz, with the gentlemen behind them, crossed the bridge,
slowly, warily, and without noise; and Fritz stumbled over
the body of De Gautet in the way of the door. They felt him
and found him dead.
Then they consulted, listening eagerly for any sound from
the cells below; but there came none, and they were greatly
afraid that the King's guards had killed him, and having
pushed his body through the great pipe, had escaped the same
way themselves. Yet, because I had been seen here, they had
still some hope (thus indeed Fritz, in his friendship, told me);
and going back to Michael's body, pushing aside Antoinette,
who prayed by it, they found a key to the door which I had locked,
and opened the door. The staircase was dark, and they would not
use a torch at first, lest they should be more exposed to fire.
But soon Fritz cried: "The door down there is open! See, there is light!"
So they went on boldly, and found none to oppose them. And when they
came to the outer room and saw the Belgian, Bersonin, lying dead,
they thanked God, Sapt saying: "Ay, he has been here." Then rushing
into the King's cell, they found Detchard lying dead across
the dead physician, and the King on his back with his chair by him.
And Fritz cried: "He's dead!" and Sapt drove all out of the room
except Fritz, and knelt down by the King; and, having learnt more
of wounds and the sign of death than I, he soon knew that the King
was not dead, nor, if properly attended, would die. And they covered
his face and carried him to Duke Michael's room, and laid him there;
and Antoinette rose from praying by the body of the duke and went
to bathe the King's head and dress his wounds, till a doctor came.
And Sapt, seeing I had been there, and having heard Antoinette's story,
sent Fritz to search the moat and then the forest. He dared send no one else.
And Fritz found my horse, and feared the worst. Then, as I have told,
he found me, guided by the shout with which I had called on Rupert
to stop and face me. And I think a man has never been more glad
to find his own brother alive than was Fritz to come on me; so that,
in love and anxiety for me, he thought nothing of a thing so great
as would have been the death of Rupert Hentzau. Yet, had Fritz
killed him, I should have grudged it.
The enterprise of the King's rescue being thus prosperously
concluded, it lay on Colonel Sapt to secure secrecy as to the
King ever having been in need of rescue. Antoinette de Mauban
and Johann the keeper (who, indeed, was too much hurt to be
wagging his tongue just now) were sworn to reveal nothing;
and Fritz went forth to find--not the King, but the unnamed
friend of the King, who had lain in Zenda and flashed for a
moment before the dazed eyes of Duke Michael's servants on
the drawbridge. The metamorphosis had happened; and the King,
wounded almost to death by the attacks of the gaolers who
guarded his friend, had at last overcome them, and rested now,
wounded but alive, in Black Michael's own room in the Castle.
There he had been carried, his face covered with a cloak,
from the cell; and thence orders issued, that if his friend were
found, he should be brought directly and privately to the King,
and that meanwhile messengers should ride at full speed to
Tarlenheim, to tell Marshall Strakencz to assure the princess of
the King's safety and to come himself with all speed to greet
the King. The princess was enjoined to remain at Tarlenheim,
and there await her cousin's coming or his further injunctions.
Thus the King would come to his own again, having wrought
brave deeds, and escaped, almost by a miracle, the treacherous
assault of his unnatural brother.
This ingenious arrangement of my long-headed old friend
prospered in every way, save where it encountered a force
that often defeats the most cunning schemes. I mean nothing else
than the pleasure of a woman. For, let her cousin and sovereign
send what command he chose (or Colonel Sapt chose for him),
and let Marshal Strakencz insist as he would, the Princess
Flavia was in no way minded to rest at Tarlenheim while her
lover lay wounded at Zenda; and when the Marshal, with a
small suite, rode forth from Tarlenheim on the way to Zenda,
the princess's carriage followed immediately behind, and in
this order they passed through the town, where the report was
already rife that the King, going the night before to remonstrate
with his brother, in all friendliness, for that he held one of
the King's friends in confinement in the Castle, had been most
traitorously set upon; that there had been a desperate conflict;
that the duke was slain with several of his gentlemen; and that
the King, wounded as he was, had seized and held the Castle
of Zenda. All of which talk made, as may be supposed, a mighty
excitement: and the wires were set in motion, and the tidings
came to Strelsau only just after orders had been sent thither
to parade the troops and overawe the dissatisfied quarters
of the town with a display of force.
Thus the Princess Flavia came to Zenda. And as she drove up the hill,
with the Marshal riding by the wheel and still imploring her to return
in obedience to the King's orders, Fritz von Tarlenheim,
with the prisoner of Zenda, came to the edge of the forest.
I had revived from my swoon, and walked, resting on Fritz's arm;
and looking out from the cover of the trees, I saw the princess.
Suddenly understanding from a glance at my companion's face
that we must not meet her, I sank on my knees behind a clump of bushes.
But there was one whom we had forgotten, but who followed us,
and was not disposed to let slip the chance of earning a smile
and maybe a crown or two; and, while we lay hidden,
the little farm-girl came by us and ran to the princess,
curtseying and crying:
"Madame, the King is here--in the bushes! May I guide you to him, madame?"
"Nonsense, child!" said old Strakencz; "the King lies wounded in the Castle."
"Yes, sir, he's wounded, I know; but he's there--with Count Fritz--
and not at the Castle," she persisted.
"Is he in two places, or are there two Kings?" asked Flavia, bewildered.
"And how should he be there?"
"He pursued a gentleman, madame, and they fought till Count Fritz came;
and the other gentleman took my father's horse from me and rode away;
but the King is here with Count Fritz. Why, madame, is there another man
in Ruritania like the King?"
"No, my child," said Flavia softly (I was told it afterwards),
and she smiled and gave the girl money. "I will go and see
this gentleman," and she rose to alight from the carriage.
But at this moment Sapt came riding from the Castle, and,
seeing the princess, made the best of a bad job, and cried
to her that the King was well tended and in no danger.
"In the Castle?" she asked.
"Where else, madame?" said he, bowing.
"But this girl says he is yonder--with Count Fritz."
Sapt turned his eyes on the child with an incredulous smile.
"Every fine gentleman is a King to such," said he.
"Why, he's as like the King as one pea to another, madame!"
cried the girl, a little shaken but still obstinate.
Sapt started round. The old Marshal's face asked unspoken questions.
Flavia's glance was no less eloquent. Suspicion spread quick.
"I'll ride myself and see this man," said Sapt hastily.
"Nay, I'll come myself," said the princess.
"Then come alone," he whispered.
And she, obedient to the strange hinting in his face, prayed the Marshal
and the rest to wait; and she and Sapt came on foot towards where we lay,
Sapt waving to the farm-girl to keep at a distance. And when I saw them
coming, I sat in a sad heap on the ground, and buried my face in my hands.
I could not look at her. Fritz knelt by me, laying his hand on my shoulder.
"Speak low, whatever you say," I heard Sapt whisper as they came up;
and the next thing I heard was a low cry--half of joy, half of fear--
from the princess:
"It is he! Are you hurt?"
And she fell on the ground by me, and gently pulled my hands away;
but I kept my eyes to the ground.
"It is the King!" she said. "Pray, Colonel Sapt,
tell me where lay the wit of the joke you played on me?"
We answered none of us; we three were silent before her.
Regardless of them, she threw her arms round my neck
and kissed me. Then Sapt spoke in a low hoarse whisper:
"It is not the King. Don't kiss him; he's not the King."
She drew back for a moment; then, with an arm still round
my neck, she asked, in superb indignation:
"Do I not know my love? Rudolf my love!"
"It is not the King," said old Sapt again; and a sudden sob
broke from tender-hearted Fritz.
It was the sob that told her no comedy was afoot.
"He is the King!" she cried. "It is the King's face--the King's ring--
my ring! It is my love!"
"Your love, madame," said old Sapt, "but not the King.
The King is there in the Castle. This gentleman--"
"Look at me, Rudolf! look at me!" she cried, taking my face
between her hands. "Why do you let them torment me?
Tell me what it means!"
Then I spoke, gazing into her eyes.
"God forgive me, madame!" I said. "I am not the King!"
I felt her hands clutch my cheeks. She gazed at me as never
man's face was scanned yet. And I, silent again, saw wonder born,
and doubt grow, and terror spring to life as she looked.
And very gradually the grasp of her hands slackened;
she turned to Sapt, to Fritz, and back to me:
then suddenly she reeled forward and fell in my arms;
and with a great cry of pain I gathered her to me
and kissed her lips. Sapt laid his hand on my arm.
I looked up in his face. And I laid her softly on the ground,
and stood up, looking on her, cursing heaven that young
Rupert's sword had spared me for this sharper pang.
If love were all!
It was night, and I was in the cell wherein the King had lain
in the Castle of Zenda. The great pipe that Rupert of Hentzau
had nicknamed "Jacob's Ladder" was gone, and the lights in the
room across the moat twinkled in the darkness. All was still;
the din and clash of strife were gone. I had spent the day hidden
in the forest, from the time when Fritz had led me off,
leaving Sapt with the princess. Under cover of dusk, muffled up,
I had been brought to the Castle and lodged where I now lay.
Though three men had died there--two of them by my hand--
I was not troubled by ghosts. I had thrown myself on a pallet
by the window, and was looking out on the black water; Johann,
the keeper, still pale from his wound, but not much hurt besides,
had brought me supper. He told me that the King was doing well,
that he had seen the princess; that she and he, Sapt and Fritz,
had been long together. Marshal Strakencz was gone to Strelsau;
Black Michael lay in his coffin, and Antoinette de Mauban watched
by him; had I not heard, from the chapel, priests singing mass for him?
Outside there were strange rumours afloat. Some said that
the prisoner of Zenda was dead; some, that he had vanished
yet alive; some, that he was a friend who had served the King
well in some adventure in England; others, that he had discovered
the Duke's plots, and had therefore been kidnapped by him.
One or two shrewd fellows shook their heads and said only that
they would say nothing, but they had suspicions that more was
to be known than was known, if Colonel Sapt would tell all he knew.
Thus Johann chattered till I sent him away and lay there alone,
thinking, not of the future, but--as a man is wont to do when stirring
things have happened to him--rehearsing the events of the past weeks,
and wondering how strangely they had fallen out. And above me,
in the stillness of the night, I heard the standards flapping
against their poles, for Black Michael's banner hung there half-mast high,
and above it the royal flag of Ruritania, floating for one night more
over my head. Habit grows so quick, that only by an effort did I recollect
that it floated no longer for me.
Presently Fritz von Tarlenheim came into the room. I was standing
then by the window; the glass was opened, and I was idly fingering
the cement which clung to the masonry where "Jacob's Ladder" had been.
He told me briefly that the King wanted me, and together we crossed
the drawbridge and entered the room that had been Black Michael's.
The King was lying there in bed; our doctor from Tarlenheim
was in attendance on him, and whispered to me that my visit
must be brief. The King held out his hand and shook mine.
Fritz and the doctor withdrew to the window.
I took the King's ring from my finger and placed it on his.
"I have tried not to dishonour it, sire," said I.
"I can't talk much to you," he said, in a weak voice. "I have
had a great fight with Sapt and the Marshal--for we have told
the Marshal everything. I wanted to take you to Strelsau
and keep you with me, and tell everyone of what you had done;
and you would have been my best and nearest friend, Cousin Rudolf.
But they tell me I must not, and that the secret must be kept--
if kept it can be."
"They are right, sire. Let me go. My work here is done."
"Yes, it is done, as no man but you could have done it. When
they see me again, I shall have my beard on; I shall--yes, faith,
I shall be wasted with sickness. They will not wonder that the King
looks changed in face. Cousin, I shall try to let them find him
changed in nothing else. You have shown me how to play the King."
"Sire," said I. "I can take no praise from you. It is by the narrowest
grace of God that I was not a worse traitor than your brother."
He turned inquiring eyes on me; but a sick man shrinks from puzzles,
and he had no strength to question me. His glance fell on Flavia's ring,
which I wore. I thought he would question me about it; but, after fingering
it idly, he let his head fall on his pillow.
"I don't know when I shall see you again," he said faintly, almost listlessly.
"If I can ever serve you again, sire," I answered.
His eyelids closed. Fritz came with the doctor. I kissed the King's hand,
and let Fritz lead me away. I have never seen the King since.
Outside, Fritz turned, not to the right, back towards the drawbridge,
but to the left, and without speaking led me upstairs, through a handsome
corridor in the chateau.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
Looking away from me, Fritz answered:
"She has sent for you. When it is over, come back to the bridge.
I'll wait for you there."
"What does she want?" said I, breathing quickly.
He shook his head.
"Does she know everything?"
He opened a door, and gently pushing me in, closed it behind me.
I found myself in a drawing-room, small and richly furnished.
At first I thought that I was alone, for the light that came from
a pair of shaded candles on the mantelpiece was very dim.
But presently I discerned a woman's figure standing by the window.
I knew it was the princess, and I walked up to her, fell on one knee,
and carried the hand that hung by her side to my lips. She neither moved
nor spoke. I rose to my feet, and, piercing the gloom with my eager eyes,
saw her pale face and the gleam of her hair, and before I knew,
I spoke softly:
She trembled a little, and looked round. Then she darted to me,
taking hold of me.
"Don't stand, don't stand! No, you mustn't! You're hurt!
Sit down--here, here!"
She made me sit on a sofa, and put her hand on my forehead.
"How hot your head is," she said, sinking on her knees by me.
Then she laid her head against me, and I heard her murmur:
"My darling, how hot your head is!"
Somehow love gives even to a dull man the knowledge of his lover's heart.
I had come to humble myself and pray pardon for my presumption;
but what I said now was:
"I love you with all my heart and soul!"
For what troubled and shamed her? Not her love for me,
but the fear that I had counterfeited the lover as I had acted
the King, and taken her kisses with a smothered smile.
"With all my life and heart," said I, as she clung to me.
"Always, from the first moment I saw you in the Cathedral!
There has been but one woman in the world to me--and there
will be no other. But God forgive me the wrong I've done you!"
"They made you do it!" she said quickly; and she added,
raising her head and looking in my eyes: "It might have made no
difference if I'd known it. It was always you, never the King!"
"I meant to tell you," said I. "I was going to on the night
of the ball in Strelsau, when Sapt interrupted me. After that,
I couldn't--I couldn't risk losing you before--before--I must!
My darling, for you I nearly left the King to die!"
"I know, I know! What are we to do now, Rudolf?"
I put my arm round her and held her up while I said:
"I am going away tonight."
"Ah, no, no!" she cried. "Not tonight!"
"I must go tonight, before more people have seen me.
And how would you have me stay, sweetheart, except--?"
"If I could come with you!" she whispered very low.
"My God!" said I roughly, "don't talk about that!"
and I thrust her a little back from me.
"Why not? I love you. You are as good a gentleman as the King!"
Then I was false to all that I should have held by. For I caught
her in my arms and prayed her, in words that I will not write,
to come with me, daring all Ruritania to take her from me.
And for a while she listened, with wondering, dazzled eyes.
But as her eyes looked on me, I grew ashamed, and my voice died
away in broken murmurs and stammerings, and at last I was silent.
She drew herself away from me and stood against the wall,
while I sat on the edge of the sofa, trembling in every limb,
knowing what I had done--loathing it, obstinate not to undo it.
So we rested a long time.
"I am mad!" I said sullenly.
"I love your madness, dear," she answered.
Her face was away from me, but I caught the sparkle of a tear on her cheek.
I clutched the sofa with my hand and held myself there.
"Is love the only thing?" she asked, in low, sweet tones that
seemed to bring a calm even to my wrung heart. "If love were
the only thing, I would follow you--in rags, if need be--to the
world's end; for you hold my heart in the hollow of your hand!
But is love the only thing?"
I made no answer. It gives me shame now to think that I would not help her.
She came near me and laid her hand on my shoulder. I put my hand up
and held hers.
"I know people write and talk as if it were. Perhaps, for some,
Fate lets it be. Ah, if I were one of them! But if love had been
the only thing, you would have let the King die in his cell."
I kissed her hand.
"Honour binds a woman too, Rudolf. My honour lies in being true
to my country and my House. I don't know why God has let me love you;
but I know that I must stay."
Still I said nothing; and she, pausing a while, then went on:
"Your ring will always be on my finger, your heart in my heart,
the touch of your lips on mine. But you must go and I must stay.
Perhaps I must do what it kills me to think of doing."
I knew what she meant, and a shiver ran through me. But I
could not utterly fail her. I rose and took her hand.
"Do what you will, or what you must," I said. "I think God shows
His purposes to such as you. My part is lighter; for your ring
shall be on my finger and your heart in mine, and no touch save
of your lips will ever be on mine. So, may God comfort you, my darling!"
There struck on our ears the sound of singing. The priests
in the chapel were singing masses for the souls of those who
lay dead. They seemed to chant a requiem over our buried joy,
to pray forgiveness for our love that would not die. The soft,
sweet, pitiful music rose and fell as we stood opposite one another,
her hands in mine.
"My queen and my beauty!" said I.
"My lover and true knight!" she said. "Perhaps we shall never
see one another again. Kiss me, my dear, and go!"
I kissed her as she bade me; but at the last she clung to me,
whispering nothing but my name, and that over and over again
--and again--and again; and then I left her.
Rapidly I walked down to the bridge. Sapt and Fritz were
waiting for me. Under their directions I changed my dress,
and muffling my face, as I had done more than once before,
I mounted with them at the door of the Castle, and we three
rode through the night and on to the breaking day, and found
ourselves at a little roadside station just over the border
of Ruritania. The train was not quite due, and I walked
with them in a meadow by a little brook while we waited for it.
They promised to send me all news; they overwhelmed me with
kindness--even old Sapt was touched to gentleness, while Fritz
was half unmanned. I listened in a kind of dream to all they said.
"Rudolf! Rudolf! Rudolf!" still rang in my ears--a burden of
sorrow and of love. At last they saw that I could not heed them,
and we walked up and down in silence, till Fritz touched me on the arm,
and I saw, a mile or more away, the blue smoke of the train.
Then I held out a hand to each of them.
"We are all but half-men this morning," said I, smiling.
"But we have been men, eh, Sapt and Fritz, old friends?
We have run a good course between us."
"We have defeated traitors and set the King firm on his throne,"
Then Fritz von Tarlenheim suddenly, before I could discern
his purpose or stay him, uncovered his head and bent as he
used to do, and kissed my hand; and as I snatched it away,
he said, trying to laugh:
"Heaven doesn't always make the right men kings!"
Old Sapt twisted his mouth as he wrung my hand.
"The devil has his share in most things," said he.
The people at the station looked curiously at the tall man
with the muffled face, but we took no notice of their glances.
I stood with my two friends and waited till the train came up to us.
Then we shook hands again, saying nothing; and both this time--and,
indeed, from old Sapt it seemed strange--bared their heads,
and so stood still till the train bore me away from their sight.
So that it was thought some great man travelled privately
for his pleasure from the little station that morning; whereas,
in truth it was only I, Rudolf Rassendyll, an English gentleman,
a cadet of a good house, but a man of no wealth nor position,
nor of much rank. They would have been disappointed to know that.
Yet had they known all they would have looked more curiously still.
For, be I what I might now, I had been for three months a King,
which, if not a thing to be proud of, is at least an experience
to have undergone. Doubtless I should have thought more of it,
had there not echoed through the air, from the towers of Zenda
that we were leaving far away, into my ears and into my heart
the cry of a woman's love--"Rudolf! Rudolf! Rudolf!"
Hark! I hear it now!
Present, Past--and Future?
The details of my return home can have but little interest.
I went straight to the Tyrol and spent a quiet fortnight--
mostly on my back, for a severe chill developed itself;
and I was also the victim of a nervous reaction, which made
me weak as a baby. As soon as I had reached my quarters,
I sent an apparently careless postcard to my brother,
announcing my good health and prospective return.
That would serve to satisfy the inquiries as to my whereabouts,
which were probably still vexing the Prefect of the Police of Strelsau.
I let my moustache and imperial grow again; and as hair comes quickly
on my face, they were respectable, though not luxuriant,
by the time that I landed myself in Paris and called on
my friend George Featherly. My interview with him was chiefly
remarkable for the number of unwilling but necessary falsehoods
that I told; and I rallied him unmercifully when he told me that
he had made up his mind that I had gone in the track of Madame de Mauban
to Strelsau. The lady, it appeared, was back in Paris, but was living
in great seclusion--a fact for which gossip found no difficulty
in accounting. Did not all the world know of the treachery
and death of Duke Michael? Nevertheless, George bade Bertram
Bertrand be of good cheer, "for," said he flippantly, "a live
poet is better than a dead duke." Then he turned on me and asked:
"What have you been doing to your moustache?"
"To tell the truth," I answered, assuming a sly air, "a man
now and then has reasons for wishing to alter his appearance.
But it's coming on very well again."
"What? Then I wasn't so far out! If not the fair Antoinette,
there was a charmer?"
"There is always a charmer," said I, sententiously.
But George would not be satisfied till he had wormed out
of me (he took much pride in his ingenuity) an absolutely
imaginary love-affair, attended with the proper soupcon of scandal,
which had kept me all this time in the peaceful regions of the Tyrol.
In return for this narrative, George regaled me with a great deal
of what he called "inside information" (known only to diplomatists),
as to the true course of events in Ruritania, the plots and counterplots.
In his opinion, he told me, with a significant nod, there was more to be said
for Black Michael than the public supposed; and he hinted at a well-founded
suspicion that the mysterious prisoner of Zenda, concerning whom
a good many paragraphs had appeared, was not a man at all, but
(here I had much ado not to smile) a woman disguised as a man;
and that strife between the King and his brother for this
imaginary lady's favour was at the bottom of their quarrel.
"Perhaps it was Madame de Mauban herself," I suggested.
"No!" said George decisively, "Antoinette de Mauban was jealous
of her, and betrayed the duke to the King for that reason.
And, to confirm what I say, it's well known that the
Princess Flavia is now extremely cold to the King,
after having been most affectionate."
At this point I changed the subject, and escaped from George's
"inspired" delusions. But if diplomatists never know anything
more than they had succeeded in finding out in this instance,
they appear to me to be somewhat expensive luxuries.
While in Paris I wrote to Antoinette, though I did not venture
to call upon her. I received in return a very affecting letter,
in which she assured me that the King's generosity and kindness,
no less than her regard for me, bound her conscience to absolute secrecy.
She expressed the intention of settling in the country, and withdrawing
herself entirely from society. Whether she carried out her designs,
I have never heard; but as I have not met her, or heard news of her
up to this time, it is probable that she did. There is no doubt
that she was deeply attached to the Duke of Strelsau; and her conduct
at the time of his death proved that no knowledge of the man's real character
was enough to root her regard for him out of her heart.
I had one more battle left to fight--a battle that would, I knew,
be severe, and was bound to end in my complete defeat. Was I
not back from the Tyrol, without having made any study of its
inhabitants, institutions, scenery, fauna, flora, or other features?
Had I not simply wasted my time in my usual frivolous,
good-for-nothing way? That was the aspect of the matter which,
I was obliged to admit, would present itself to my sister-in-law;
and against a verdict based on such evidence, I had really no
defence to offer. It may be supposed, then, that I presented myself
in Park Lane in a shamefaced, sheepish fashion. On the whole,
my reception was not so alarming as I had feared. It turned out
that I had done, not what Rose wished, but--the next best thing--
what she prophesied. She had declared that I should make no notes,
record no observations,gather no materials. My brother, on the other hand,
had been weak enough to maintain that a serious resolve had at length
When I returned empty-handed, Rose was so occupied in triumphing
over Burlesdon that she let me down quite easily,
devoting the greater part of her reproaches to my failure
to advertise my friends of my whereabouts.
"We've wasted a lot of time trying to find you," she said.
"I know you have," said I. "Half our ambassadors have led
weary lives on my account. George Featherly told me so.
But why should you have been anxious? I can take care of myself."
"Oh, it wasn't that," she cried scornfully, "but I wanted to tell
you about Sir Jacob Borrodaile. You know, he's got an Embassy
--at least, he will have in a month--and he wrote to say he
hoped you would go with him."
"Where's he going to?"
"He's going to succeed Lord Topham at Strelsau," said she.
"You couldn't have a nicer place, short of Paris."
"Strelsau! H'm!" said I, glancing at my brother.
"Oh, THAT doesn't matter!" exclaimed Rose impatiently.
"Now, you will go, won't you?"
"I don't know that I care about it!"
"Oh, you're too exasperating!"
"And I don't think I can go to Strelsau. My dear Rose, would
"Oh, nobody remembers that horrid old story now."
Upon this, I took out of my pocket a portrait of the King of
Ruritania. It had been taken a month or two before he ascended
the throne. She could not miss my point when I said, putting it
into her hands:
"In case you've not seen, or not noticed, a picture of Rudolf V,
there he is. Don't you think they might recall the story, if I
appeared at the Court of Ruritania?"
My sister-in-law looked at the portrait, and then at me.
"Good gracious!" she said, and flung the photograph down on the table.
"What do you say, Bob?" I asked.
Burlesdon got up, went to a corner of the room, and searched
in a heap of newspapers. Presently he came back with a copy
of the Illustrated London News. Opening the paper, he displayed
a double-page engraving of the Coronation of Rudolf V at Strelsau.
The photograph and the picture he laid side by side. I sat
at the table fronting them; and, as I looked, I grew absorbed.
My eye travelled from my own portrait to Sapt, to Strakencz, to the
rich robes of the Cardinal, to Black Michael's face, to the stately
figure of the princess by his side. Long I looked and eagerly.
I was roused by my brother's hand on my shoulder. He was gazing
down at me with a puzzled expression.
"It's a remarkable likeness, you see," said I. "I really think
I had better not go to Ruritania."
Rose, though half convinced, would not abandon her position.
"It's just an excuse," she said pettishly. "You don't want
to do anything. Why, you might become an ambassador!"
"I don't think I want to be an ambassador," said I.
"It's more than you ever will be," she retorted.
That is very likely true, but it is not more than I have been.
The idea of being an ambassador could scarcely dazzle me.
I had been a king!
So pretty Rose left us in dudgeon; and Burlesdon, lighting a cigarette,
looked at me still with that curious gaze.
"That picture in the paper--" he said.
"Well, what of it? It shows that the King of Ruritania
and your humble servant are as like as two peas."
My brother shook his head.
"I suppose so," he said. "But I should know you from the man
in the photograph."
"And not from the picture in the paper?"
"I should know the photograph from the picture: the picture's
very like the photograph, but--"
"It's more like you!" said my brother.
My brother is a good man and true--so that, for all that he
is a married man and mighty fond of his wife, he should know
any secret of mine. But this secret was not mine,
and I could not tell it to him.
"I don't think it's so much like me as the photograph,"
said I boldly. "But, anyhow, Bob, I won't go to Strelsau."
"No, don't go to Strelsau, Rudolf," said he.
And whether he suspects anything, or has a glimmer of the truth,
I do not know. If he has, he keeps it to himself, and he and I
never refer to it. And we let Sir Jacob Borrodaile find another attache.
Since all these events whose history I have set down happened
I have lived a very quiet life at a small house which I have
taken in the country. The ordinary ambitions and aims of men
in my position seem to me dull and unattractive. I have little
fancy for the whirl of society, and none for the jostle of politics.
Lady Burlesdon utterly despairs of me; my neighbours think me
an indolent, dreamy, unsociable fellow. Yet I am a young man;
and sometimes I have a fancy--the superstitious would call it
a presentiment--that my part in life is not yet altogether played;
that, somehow and some day, I shall mix again in great affairs,
I shall again spin policies in a busy brain, match my wits against
my enemies', brace my muscles to fight a good fight and strike stout blows.
Such is the tissue of my thoughts as, with gun or rod in
hand, I wander through the woods or by the side of the stream.
Whether the fancy will be fulfilled, I cannot tell--still less whether
the scene that, led by memory, I lay for my new exploits will be
the true one--for I love to see myself once again in the crowded
streets of Strelsau, or beneath the frowning keep of the Castle of Zenda.
Thus led, my broodings leave the future, and turn back on the
past. Shapes rise before me in long array--the wild first revel
with the King, the rush with my brave tea-table, the night in the moat,
the pursuit in the forest: my friends and my foes, the people
who learnt to love and honour me, the desperate men who tried to kill me.
And, from amidst these last, comes one who alone of all of them yet
moves on earth, though where I know not, yet plans (as I do not doubt)
wickedness, yet turns women's hearts to softness and men's to fear and hate.
Where is young Rupert of Hentzau--the boy who came so nigh to beating me?
When his name comes into my head, I feel my hand grip and the blood
move quicker through my veins: and the hint of Fate--the presentiment--
seems to grow stronger and more definite, and to whisper insistently
in my ear that I have yet a hand to play with young Rupert;
therefore I exercise myself in arms, and seek to put off the day
when the vigour of youth must leave me.
One break comes every year in my quiet life. Then I go to Dresden,
and there I am met by my dear friend and companion, Fritz von Tarlenheim.
Last time, his pretty wife Helga came, and a lusty crowing baby with her.
And for a week Fritz and I are together, and I hear all of what falls out
in Strelsau; and in the evenings, as we walk and smoke together,
we talk of Sapt, and of the King, and often of young Rupert;
and, as the hours grow small, at last we speak of Flavia.
For every year Fritz carries with him to Dresden a little box;
in it lies a red rose, and round the stalk of the rose is a slip of paper
with the words written: "Rudolf--Flavia--always." And the like I send back
by him. That message, and the wearing of the rings, are all that
now bind me and the Queen of Ruritania. Far--nobler, as I hold her,
for the act--she has followed where her duty to her country and
her House led her, and is the wife of the King, uniting his subjects
to him by the love they bear to her, giving peace and quiet days
to thousands by her self-sacrifice. There are moments when I dare not
think of it, but there are others when I rise in spirit to where she
ever dwells; then I can thank God that I love the noblest lady in the world,
the most gracious and beautiful, and that there was nothing in my love
that made her fall short in her high duty.
Shall I see her face again--the pale face and the glorious hair?
Of that I know nothing; Fate has no hint, my heart no presentiment.
I do not know. In this world, perhaps--nay, it is likely--never.
And can it be that somewhere, in a manner whereof our flesh-bound
minds have no apprehension, she and I will be together again,
with nothing to come between us, nothing to forbid our love?
That I know not, nor wiser heads than mine. But if it be never--
if I can never hold sweet converse again with her, or look upon her face,
or know from her her love; why, then, this side the grave, I will live
as becomes the man whom she loves; and, for the other side,
I must pray a dreamless sleep.